Photo: Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

The Ruins of Us, a new novel, offers a unique perspective on Saudi Arabia from an author who spent her childhood there.

Photograph by Marco Moretti, Anzenberger/Redux

By Don George

Book of the Month: The Ruins of Us, by Keija Parssinen

Considering its importance to the U.S. as both a provider of oil and a strategic partner in the Middle East, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a surprisingly enigmatic presence in the everyday American imagination. We know almost nothing of its societal structures and cultural intricacies; even the landscape seems drawn in silhouette. So I was very excited to learn about The Ruins of Us, a debut novel set in Saudi Arabia, written by a 31-year-old American woman who spent the first 12 years of her life in the Kingdom, until her family moved to Texas in 1992.

By focusing on a short, climactic period in the life of one contemporary bicultural family—Saudi father, American mother, 16-year-old son, and 14-year-old daughter—Keija Parssinen vividly evokes daily reality in the Kingdom. We get a sense of the multiple worlds that co-exist uneasily in the oil-rich Eastern Province: the cities of skyscrapers and mansions that gleam where only fishermen’s huts and nomads’ camps existed 60 years ago; the middle-class neighborhoods of potholed streets, cheaply stuccoed concrete houses, and broken streetlamps; and the windblown, sand-marooned expat compounds where foreign oil workers congregate. She gives glimpses of the lushly gardened and chandeliered palace of the local royal, the cumin- and coriander-spiced aisles of a neighborhood market, the hot and dirty huts of the coastal poor. And beyond all these, she depicts the implacable desert.

As her family tale unfolds, Parssinen illuminates how politics, gender, and business slide slickly forward in the Kingdom, and the tensions that spark among power, materialism, and religion. While she portrays the physical and social landscapes with the precision of an impassioned expat, Parssinen also limns—with a wisdom that belies her age—the culture-transcending contours of the human heart.

New Book Roundups

Pearls of India

In The World We Found, by Thrity Umrigar, four women—best friends from college in 1970s Bombay—reunite 30 years later when one of them is diagnosed with cancer. A contemporary Delhi wedding is thrown into uproar by the arrival of the mysterious and beautiful Leela, who returns to her hometown from New York in the debut novel, Leela’s Book, by Alice Albinia.

Italian Gold

The Gilder, Kathryn Kay’s debut novel, tells the story of an American art restorer and single mother with a secret, which surfaces when she is invited back to Florence, where she learned her craft, to give a talk. Roger Crowley gives an epic account of Venetian maritime history in City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas.

Love in Cold Climes

Through newly revealed letters and diaries, Virginia Rounding offers an intimate biography of Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina. Eva Stachniak brings to life the early years—and secret young romances—of one of Russia’s most memorable rulers in The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great. In the novel The Little Russian, by Susan Sherman, a woman attached to the finer things in early 20th century Russian life discovers that her husband is a member of an underground Jewish resistance movement. When he is forced to flee the country, she must choose between going with him or staying in what she believes is her comfortable existence—not realizing how soon war will destroy everything.

Muses and Mysteries

Ellis Avery reimagines the fiery love story between art deco painter Tamara de Lempicka and her most famous muse, Rafaela Fano, in 1920s Paris in the novel The Last Nude. Providing a rare glimpse into one of the world’s least known countries, Adam Johnson weaves a tale of hardship, romance, and redemption in North Korea in The Orphan Master's Son. John Burdett’s latest Bangkok-set thriller, Vulture Peak, has his Buddhist cop protagonist Sonchai Jitpleecheep tracking down a human-organ trafficking network.

One Last Thing:

The Gift of Water

Sometimes events in the world seem so distant and so intractable that you begin to wonder how any single person can have a significant effect on the planet. Then a guy like Doc Hendley comes along to set you straight. Hendley is the author of Wine to Water, the amazing account of his efforts to bring clean water to some of the planet’s most desperate, drought-plagued places, from Darfur and Cambodia to Uganda and Haiti. Told simply and straight from the heart, the book relates how this unassuming preacher’s-son-turned-bartender ended up innocently setting off for Darfur in 2004, and of the death-defying, life-bestowing adventures that have ensued. It’s the perfect potion for some New Year’s inspiration.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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